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Tom Foster guides us through the phenomena that occur in single-sex schools compared to mixed schools. 

Sweden has announced a proposal to implement a nationwide ban on single-sex classrooms to tackle inequality. Should Britain do the same?

When having a debate on whether single-sex taught education is better than mixed gender classrooms it often seems more ideological than scientific. A typical image of a single-sex school would be Eton or your local private/grammar school.

Comprehensive schools are now standardly mixed with there being around a third fewer girls’ schools and half as many boys’ schools as there were 20 years ago. Yet should we be celebrating this move to mixed education, or are we just avoiding the fact that women are from Venus and men are from Mars?

Multiple studies found a positive correlation between academic achievement of girls in single-sex education compared to coeducation

Emer Smyth, Research Professor and Head of the Social Research Division at the Economic and Social Research Institute, tried to delve in deepen the effect of single-sex education versus coeducation. However, she found that the evidence that met international criteria was mostly American and paid little attention to whether benefits of single-sex education are context specific.

Maths and the sciences were taken up less by girls in coeducation

Despite the shortcomings, the research did throw up some interesting points. Boys tend to be more disruptive in the classroom and traditional ‘masculine’ subjects such as maths and the sciences were taken up less by girls in coeducation.

Multiple studies found a positive correlation between academic achievement of girls in single-sex education compared to coeducation, but not as strong correlation for boys.

Less girls take up science and maths in mixed schools

Researching this article those who supported single-sex education often spoke of the positive effect it had on girls. Academics at London’s Institute of Education, who tracked 13,000 Britons over 40 years, found women who attended all-girls schools earned up to 10 percent more than those sent to mixed schools.

Furthermore, a study of 2015 results in England shows 75 per cent of pupils in all-girl secondaries received five good GCSEs compared with 55 per cent who were in coeducation.

A systemic review of the area found 23 studies indicated “null” (or non-significant) findings, 15 indicated an advantage to single-sex education and only one study showed an advantage to coeducational schooling.

However, whilst the evidence appears strong in the case of single-sex education or at least not supportive of coeducation, are we as Emer Smyth claims missing context?

In the UK, single-sex education is found at grammar or private schools which naturally outperform mixed comprehensive schools due to many external factors including parental income, family connections and social standing.

Helen Fraser, chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust the UK’s leading network of independent girls’ schools, defends single-sex education on the grounds it helps defy binary gender norms.

White working class boys who are now the worst performing ethnic group in education

She says “if giving girls the opportunity to be free of gender stereotyping and associated pressure is unnatural, I for one am glad that single-sex schools are rewriting the rules.” Her point appears to be backed by the evidence finding increases of girls taking science and math based subject in single-sex compared to coeducation.

Yet Younger and Warrington, in ‘Would Harry and Hermione have done better in single-sex classes?’, suggested whilst single-sex classes have the potential to raise the achievement of both boys and girls, this is only managed when they challenge existing gender stereotypes.

Our education system has let down many unfortunately, not most of all white working class boys who are now the worst performing ethnic group in education. Would a move to single-sex schooling provide a means for both boys and girls to excel in education whilst challenging binary gender roles?

Doubtful if the single-sex education stays within the private and independent sector. It is hard to have a debate about single-sex versus coeducation without ideological arguments creeping in.

However, I feel that Education Minister Gustav Fridolin of Sweden said it best when discussing the ban on single-sex classrooms: “If you feel that having girls and boys in the same class causes problems, then the problems themselves must be addressed, not avoided by simply splitting the class up.”


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